The weekend Michael Jordan really became MJ

His scintillating victory against Dominique Wilkins in the dunk contest and his All-Star Game MVP during All-Star Weekend in 1988 kicked his legend into high gear.

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Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan during the 1988 dunk contest.

John Swart/AP

Welcome, all you out-of-town folks, to Chicago’s first NBA All-Star Weekend in, let’s see, 32 years!

Some of you might not have been born in 1988, or maybe you were just wee tadpoles. (Primer: Ronald Reagan was president, the Berlin Wall still stood, Bon Jovi’s ‘‘Livin’ on a Prayer’’ was a hit, ‘‘The Cosby Show’’ was cool, ‘‘Good Morning, Vietnam’’ ruled at the movie theater and the average new car cost $14,000.)

The All-Star Game on Feb. 7, 1988, took place in the now-demolished Chicago Stadium, a smoke-filled, narrow-aisled, claustrophobic little arena where the Bulls and Blackhawks played. The cramped old Stadium was to the current United Center — built just yards away in 1994 — as a sparrow is to a peacock.

But the Stadium had soul, it had frenzy, it had madness. And here’s the key: Michael Jordan loved it.

Why is that important?

Because that All-Star Weekend in the house that No. 23 loved marked Jordan’s debut as the MJ who would dominate the collective minds of basketball fans for many years to come. The man who would become the consensus greatest player of all time, the ‘‘Be Like Mike’’ icon of box-office and advertising fame, ‘‘His Airness’’ with the pearly smile and the icy cruelty of an assassin — that character came out of the winter Chi-Town weekend fully formed and ready to lay down his cards.

Though Jordan and the Bulls wouldn’t win the first of their six NBA championships for three more years, the pendulum of success had been set on its course and was basically unstoppable. Indeed, the Bulls likely would have won eight crowns in a row — instead of the split pair of three-peats — from 1991 to 1998 if Jordan hadn’t mysteriously retired for almost two full years before the 1993-94 season to try his hand at pro baseball.

I bring all this up because, dear visitors, you might have noticed the Bulls as currently constructed have almost nothing to do with the festivities Saturday and Sunday, other than ownership providing the venue.

There isn’t a Bulls player in the main game. There’s not one in the slam-dunk contest. None in the Rising Stars game or in the skills challenge. There’s only Zach LaVine in the three-point contest, though it’s unclear why. LaVine is the longest-odds entrant with the lowest percentage among the eight competitors involved.

OK, Chicago deserves to be thrown a bone here, don’t you think? Even if the team is terrible, the fans are as good as can be.

So back to Jordan and what happened way back when.

First came the dunk contest on Feb. 6, which was basically the greatest ever. How do I know? I was there.

Nor am I letting my vision at floor level cloud my perception. The event has been called by more veteran hoops writers than I the greatest of all time.

To start with, the two primary contestants — the not-quite 25-year-old Jordan and 28-year-old Dominique Wilkins — were both stars in their prime, both already voted into the All-Star Game itself and both previous dunk-contest champs. In time, each would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But because of various circumstances, they had not gone head-to-head in the contest, and that had people cranked up for the competition. Wilkins was a warrior, and it already was known that MJ never showed up to finish second in anything.

You should remember that this was before cellphones, personal cameras all the rest and that the dunking process itself lasts for less than a second. Jordan’s longest hang time has been recorded at .92 seconds, so the dunks have to be viewed in still frames or slow motion to fully appreciate their beauty, athleticism and violence.

The iconic frame — maybe the best is by longtime Bulls photographer Bill Smith — from Jordan’s final dunk swiftly turned into a poster hung on little boys’ (and maybe little girls’) bedroom walls worldwide. Yes, the man could fly. Dream on, children!

This is how the dramatic ending moment came to be. Wilkins was a windmilling madman all afternoon, racking up a lead that Jordan would have to surpass with one dunk left. Jordan needed 49 of a possible 50 points to win. Forty-nines came hard from the judges.

The tension was immense as Jordan surveyed the floor, pondering his options. As always, he was resplendent — a beautiful, lithe, physical specimen — outfitted in his new Air Jordan III shoes, which would hit stores that month for a crazy $100 ($218 today).

Jordan strode to the end of the Stadium hardwood. This was the floor he loved so much that he would kneel at the center circle and kiss the raging Bulls logo in his final appearance in the building, at Scottie Pippen’s charity game in the summer of 1994. Jordan was playing baseball then, but he paused long enough to hoist 46 shots and score 52 points for the Red team, completely dominating Pippen and his 24 points for the losing White team. Typical Mike.

Having developed his plan, Jordan began running toward the far basket from the end line, dribbling the ball hard, picking up speed as he moved, then launching himself into the sky off his left foot as he reached the free-throw line.

You likely have seen the midair cruise that resulted. It’s both breathtaking and inspiring, like seeing a man stare down an impossible foe — this dumb, unmoving metal ring 10 feet in the air — and virtually bring it to its knees.

His score? He needed a 49, remember.


After that, the All-Star Game was a fait accompli. You knew, just knew.

Jordan and Wilkins were teammates, and Dominique scored 29 points, the second-most of anyone in the All-Star Game. But Jordan had 40 points on 17-for-23 shooting, plus eight rebounds, four blocks, four steals and three assists and was named MVP.

Here he was then. Take a look. Chicago was no longer just dese, dem, dose and Al Capone. The globe was going to know who Michael was and, along the way, rethink the city he repped.

At Sports Illustrated’s 20th Century Sports Awards ceremony 11 years later, Jordan was named the Athlete of the Century. That’s about as far as it goes, as high as it flies, athlete-wise.

And in certain ways — like a trumpet call across the kingdom — the Jordan legend began with that 1988 All-Star moment. Please remember that, basketball fans, as you take in the festivities this weekend and hear all the chatter about so many current stars, about the great figures of the NBA past, about men such as Kobe Bryant and former commissioner David Stern, who are no longer with us.

Just remember that once upon a time in Chicago, many years ago, the Bulls truly mattered.

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